The keyboard lends itself very well to recording. Since it’s a digital instrument, it’s easy to interface with a computer, a digital recorder of any sort, or even a smartphone or tablet. There’s also a lot of room for experimentation, thanks to various connection methods and sound libraries. If you are interested in recording your instrument, but always feel like it’s too overwhelming, this article is for you. It will describe the various options available to you and what to choose ideally for your needs. If you are absolutely new to the concept of recording, make sure you read my introduction here so that you have a grasp on the absolute basics.
Understanding the difference between signals
Before you start, it’s important to understand the various different signals that can be produced by your keyboard. They serve different purposes, and it’s good to know when and why you should pick one signal over the other.
When you play your keyboard, you hear the sound coming from the speakers or your headphones. The sound you perceive is actually an electric signal that is amplified. We call this signal audio. In the case of a keyboard, it is generally the sound of a sampled instrument (such as a piano) or a synthesised timbre created by an engine.
MIDI (which stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is a digital language that carries information about a note’s pitch, velocity, duration, and a few other useful pieces of data. This is very different from an actual musical audio signal and is used to communicate between devices. MIDI is how your keyboard knows which sample to activate when you play a note. For example, when you play a particular note, the force you use is captured, and the keyboard associates the pitch of that key and the force you applied to pick out the closest sample possible.
This concept has been expanded, and it’s possible to use MIDI to make multiple devices interact with each other. You can, for example, write a perfectly executed and timed piece of music with an editor, send it out to your keyboard, and hear it performed perfectly as if someone was playing. The opposite is true also—you can send out your performance to a sound bank stored on a computer and explore countless new sounds your instrument didn’t have originally. You are essentially using your keys as a MIDI controller in this case.
Nowadays, it’s fairly uncommon for a keyboard not to have a digital output, such as USB. Other connectors exist, such as coaxial or AES/EBU. Again, a digital signal isn’t an audio signal, and in the past this was meant as a very practical alternative to MIDI. Things have advanced slightly, and some models actually offer a digital interface which enables your computer to recognize it in a Digital Audio Workstation. If you have such a product, it’s great news because you’ll have the most flexibility possible.
Picking the right strategy for your needs
Before you set off to record your keyboard and your playing, make sure you know what your objectives are. If you do, you’ll make a better decision and avoid any regrets down the line. To make a simple recording of your playing, audio is a great way to do it. If you are just starting to play, it’s a great way to analyze your playing and see where you’re at. This could also be to sync it up to a video for better quality audio than your camera mic or even to preserve a musical idea you’d want to turn into a piece of music.
If you are looking to explore different sounds or actually record a high quality performance, it’s wise to do it in MIDI. This enables you to carefully tailor the sound (and even drastically modify it, and even swap instruments) for your needs. MIDI is very precise and will capture the details of your playing, but you’ll also be able to edit every single detail, and even correct mistakes. This is absolutely awesome for serious recordings, composing, and sound design.
How to record audio
To record the audio signal of your keyboard, you’ll first need to locate the line outputs. Some products actually don’t have them. In that case, you can also use your headphone output. There are several connectors that you might run into, but the most common are the TS (for mono signals such as the R or L line out) and the TRS (for stereo, such as the headphone out), which can be either ¼” or 1/8″.
Using the appropriate cable, simply connect them to the inputs of your recording interface or digital recorder. Your digital recorder will record when you tell it to using its own interface, so make sure you read its manual and understand how it works. The same is true for any DAW you are using. If you don’t own this type of software, there are many free ones to try out, and even very affordable, stripped down versions of industry standards. Garage band (for Mac users) and Audacity come to mind.
If you don’t own an audio interface or recorder, you can get away with the microphone input of your computer. You’ll be able to use it in your DAW. You’ll need a Y cable to connect your two TS outputs to a single TRS input. If you have a combination jack (mic and headphone in the same output) on your machine, you’ll need an adapter to make everything work properly.
How to use MIDI
If you have an old keyboard, you might have to resort to using the old school MIDI 5 pin cables. If this is the case, you’ll also need the appropriate inputs on your audio interface or a MIDI to USB converter. Some portable audio interfaces for smartphones have solutions for this, such as IK Multimedia’s iRig Pro I/O. Newer keyboards have a USB output to send this type of signal to your computer without too much of a headache.
Once you have it routed, your DAW will recognize it, and you’ll be able to edit and compose in the MIDI editor. Although sometimes time consuming, this is a great way to craft perfect performances. You’ll also have the added bonus of interfacing with musical notation software to convert your work into actual sheet music!
The built-in digital interface
Some manufacturers actually include a fully-fledged digital interface in their keyboards. It’s a very convenient addition, and I hope this becomes standard in production moving forward. With a single USB cable, your computer will be able to interpret the audio coming out of your keyboard as well as the MIDI information. It’s only a matter of assigning the correct signal to your DAW tracks, and off you go! This streamlined approach is ideal, and you’ll have the best of both worlds.
Keyboard players are spoiled with recording possibilities. With so many choices for creativity and editing options, it’s an amazing way of exploring music. It’s well worth checking out!